Interview with Montreal filmmaker Eisha Marjara

Can you describe your career up to this point and talk about why you became a filmmaker?

I would consider myself a mid-career filmmaker at this point in time. I started out as photographer but found the photograph limiting because it did not provide multiple perspectives, temporal and spatial context. This was a problem because it did not represent how I viewed the world and the multi-dimensional reality of human experience. While I was studying photography, I tended towards producing photomontages, photo essays and super-impositions to avoid the single perceptive frame. My thesis project became my very first video/film called 24 Hrs which addressed everyday violence against women. My father had bought me a video camera for my birthday and I went out and shot and edited an 18 minute video, without any clue of what I was doing and taught myself in the process. It was during the making of that video when the polytechnic massacre happened at Université de Montréal where 14 women were shot and killed by Marc Lépine. The video premiered at The Montreal International Film Festival of that year and launched me into filmmaking.

Clip from The Incredible Shrinking Woman:

 

In 1994, I made the short film The Incredible Shrinking Woman which was a satirical commentary on anorexia in a sexist culture that humorously appropriated pop cultural and cinematic tropes. Later, I was selected in a nationwide search for innovative documentary filmmakers in a program called “Fast Forward” by the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) that gave me the opportunity to write and direct my first professional film which became the feature docu-drama Desperately Seeking Helen.  The film juxtaposed my (fictionalized) search for the Bollywood movie star and vamp “Helen” with the real life experiences of my mother, an immigrant and housewife who struggled to find a home in her adopted country, and her tragic death in the 1985 bombing of Air India flight 182, which also took the life of my little sister. It was a deeply personal film that addressed universal themes and took risks in style and subject. It was a hybrid of forms, genres and mediums, blurred fiction with documentary in unconventional ways – something that had never been done before. It was truly post-modern in that sense and could not be put into a box, which I feared might also be its downfall and become a promotional nightmare. I was also nervous about how it would be received and terrified that my life so exposed would be open for ridicule. Thankfully, it was a critical success; it received several awards and had a theatrical run in several cities. After five years in the making however, and no longer at the NFB, I found myself quite lost and alone. It was as though I had come out of a rabbit hole after that difficult process and emerged into a foreign world. I had a hard time finding my place in the industry that had been changing very rapidly in early 2000. Technologies were changing, film was unaffordable, video had limitations and funding bodies were restructuring and downsizing and becoming more heavily burdened. Despite the success of my feature docu-drama, I was not finding much success in my filmmaking career with the subsequent films I was looking to get produced.

Poster for "House for Sale"

Poster for “House for Sale”

Still from “House for Sale.” Photo credit: Bobby Shore

Still from “House for Sale.” Photo credit: Bobby Shore

I felt I had not established an identity as a filmmaker, even after all these years. Was I a documentary filmmaker? Sort of, but not really. Fiction? More likely but I had no actual experience in traditional dramatic filmmaking. I found myself starting over and searching for a “home” within the industry, while producing screenplay after screenplay.  Naturally, I thought training in fiction film directing was in order. I turned to the Canadian Film Centre in Toronto (the CFC) and applied to the Director’s Lab, but because of my lack of fictional filmmaking experience, I was refused and told to “go home and make a short fiction film” and apply again once that was done. Frustrating, to say the least. So “naturally,” I fled to Germany! There, from the success of my NFB film, I met a producer and found a supportive community of media professionals that were excited about helping me produce a short film that I shot in Munich. I invested $2,500 of my own money and with volunteer help and post production grants from Montreal, I made a film aptly called The Tourist which is about a wandering loner and misfit who finds himself in Bavaria during the Oktoberfest and entangled in a couple’s troubled relationship. I have since been developing several feature film scripts, and establishing myself as a feature film writer and director.

Clip from Desperately Seeking Helen:

Clip from The Tourist:

 

How do you see yourself fitting in, or not, to the Canadian film industry or even the Montreal filmmaking community?

I don’t fit in. I have given up trying to fit in and resolved by just producing work that I feel connected to and am passionate about. The most relevant creative work that I will do are films that delve deepest into subjects that most profoundly move me. Those stories emerge from the subjective and idiosyncratic nature and course of my life journey that is unique to me. Not fitting in might be the best thing that could happen to my creative life. Yet when it comes to realizing this “creative life,” I have to believe that my difference is a strength, not a hindrance and convince others of that too, and that my stories have relevance and a place within the cinematic landscape. As women, I think we do set the bar really high and demand 200% from ourselves before believing in ourselves and stepping out taking up our space. From the films that I have been making, I am slowly finding a place within the film community in Montreal which is kind to noncommercial filmmakers because it supports and encourages marginal voices and more creative approaches to film. However, as I develop and grow in my craft, I am increasingly clear that I am a filmmaker without borders. In other words, I am not identified with any nation or culture, but perceive myself as someone who is transnational and sees through the limits of cultural, racial, religious, gender based identities and views a world in which differences give way to universal human experiences.

Does Quebecois film, which is supported so much more than English-language film in the rest of Canada, play a role or have a major influence in your own work?

Quebecois cinema has been influential in my work and has presented an alternative to American mainstream and Indie cinema. Naturally I am proud of cinema that has come out of Quebec that has been quite stellar, however I do find that it’s an industry that has not been easy to penetrate, for someone like me who is not white, male and Francophone. Apart from documentary films, I have not seen much of myself or my experience reflected in most if not all Quebec movies, commercial or otherwise with the exception of films like Incendies and Monsieur Lazhar, which were however both written, directed and produced by white Francophone males who are also my peers. I do think there is a desire for diversity and a multi-cultural and global perspective, yet resources and funds are limited, and they tend to fall into the same hands. I am bent on changing that.

Still from "The Tourist."  Photo credit: Eisha Marjara

Still from “The Tourist.” Photo credit: Eisha Marjara

How do you go about navigating your identities (as you put it to me) as a Canadian South Asian Quebecois feminist woman?  Do you consciously inject your identity into your work, or do you avoid such a personal point of view?

It’s incumbent upon me to avoid consciously injecting my identity into my work, and to consciously seek ways to make implicit my subjectivity in the stories that I tell. Research and development prior to that phase lays the groundwork, shapes my opinions, prejudices, politics and allegiances. I rely on that process to inform the story that my creative brain will end up generating. Viewers and critics are quick to put a film into a box and if it screams “feminist” or “a film about racism” or “a movie about women’s issues,” it will immediately get marginalized and set apart from “regular” boys’ films and not taken as seriously, and more likely receive less exposure, which happens with women’s work in a sexist culture. Such labeling also discourages men and a white mainstream audience, those who would most benefit from the film, access to the films. I am eager for the day when such descriptives as “female” or “black,” “gay” or whatever else will no longer apply to filmmakers.

Have you found or worked with many women within the film industry in Canada? Do you belong to any women’s film or media organizations?

One of my very first jobs was at the notorious Studio D of the National Film Board of Canada, which was a feminist run studio that was mandated to produce documentary films for and by and about women. There I met Kathleen Shannon who spearheaded the Studio, Cynthia Scott and Ginny Stikeman who was the executive producer that the time, director Ann Claire Poirier who was in the French sector and Susan Trow one of the few successful women cinematographers who really inspired me to direct. The Studio produced films like If You Love This Planet, Forbidden Love: The Unashamed Stories of Lesbian Lives, Academy Award-winning I’ll Find a Way and Flamenco at 5:15,among others.  Sadly I watched the studio shut down in 1996. Since then, I have worked on only a few indie films (documentary) by women as cinematographer, but I am seeing increasingly more women appear in the industry working as cinematographers, producers and directors.

There are a few women’s media organizations, like Réalisatrices Équitables, a Montreal based women directors’ group of which I am member, and Femmes du Cinéma, de la Television et des Nouveaux Médias (FCTNM).

Intvw-Marjara-DSH-poster

Poster for “Desperately Seeking Helen”

What has your experience been with funding your projects? Have you ever depended on any of the numerous and established funding schemes available in Canada?

All of my projects except for my docu-drama that was exclusively funded by the NFB, have been funded by artist grants, such as The Canada Council for the Arts and Conseil des Arts et des Lettres du Quebec. There are also grants offered by film coops and the NFB which has resources to assist independent filmmakers. Filmmakers and producers who have a company, have more options available to them for financing. They can approach several other financing institutions like SODEC and Telefilm among others. In most cases, there are up to two deadlines a year, and it takes three to four months to receive the results from the application. If the submission is unsuccessful, the applicant can apply again, which also means that it can take years before a film, even a short film or documentary can receive funding. A new jury or assessment committee is selected for each application period. I have tried my hand at crowd funding, but I need more skill to be truly successful at it.

What is your latest project, and what are you working on next?

My latest project is the short suburban drama House for Sale that is having a successful festival run now. Since its release last February, it has picked up six awards. It is from the momentum and success of this film that I would like to get produced a feature film called Venus which, like the short, centers on a transgender protagonist and grapples with themes of identity, belonging and love. I am also developing the drama Calorie which is about an Indo-Canadian mother who travels to India with her troubled teen daughters, only regretting the trip which turns to tragedy.

Trailer for House for Sale:

Learn more about Eisha Marjara at:

Website: eishamarjara.com
House for Sale: houseforsalefilm.com
House for Sale Trailer: vimeo.com/30089402
Wiki page: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eisha_Marjara
ImDb: imdb.com/name/nm0548205
Facebook HFS page: facebook.com/House4SaleFilm

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Intvw-Marjara-headshot

Photo credit: Mélanie Robert

Montreal filmmaker Eisha Marjara first drew attention with the witty and incisive The Incredible Shrinking Woman followed by feature docu-drama Desperately Seeking Helen, an NFB production which received the Jury Prize at the München Dokumentarfilm Festival and the Critics’ Choice Award at the Locarno Film Festival in 2000.  The Tourist (2006) was nominated for best short at the Female Eye Film Festival in Toronto.

She’s currently developing several features including Venus as well as the controversial docu-drama Lolita Diaries which explores girlhood and sexuality through the lens of Nabokov’s Lolita. Her latest film, House for Sale (2012), has received several awards. (Contact Eisha.)

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